The father of Canadian computing

Photo: Robert Lansdale/Courtesy of the University of Toronto Archives

Photo: Robert Lansdale/Courtesy of the University of Toronto Archives

Computing pioneer Kelly Gotlieb was quintessentially Canadian in that he united high technical achievement with a low public profile. Leaders in the field of digital computation, however, have long regarded the University of Toronto professor emeritus, who died on Oct. 16 at the age of 95, as the father of Canadian computer science.

In 1948, just a year after receiving his doctorate, Dr. Gotlieb helped establish the country’s first computation centre, at the University of Toronto, and in 1952, he imported Canada’s earliest digital computer, FERUT, to his new lab. This 800-pound thermionic-tube-filled monster was the second of its kind to be produced by the British firm Ferranti Electric Co. (FERUT is an acronym for ‘FERranti U of T’).

With FERUT up and running, Dr. Gotlieb collaborated with the University of Saskatchewan to process research data digitally. U of S sent metres of paper tape by Teletype to U of T over analog phone lines, encoding gigabytes of raw data. Dr. Gotlieb’s computation centre fed this into FERUT, which in mere hours had analytical output, also on paper tape, that was then sent back to U of S. The process was lightning-fast compared with previous snail-mail turnaround times of up to four months.

When the university established its Department of Computer Science in 1964 (for graduate students only), Dr. Gotlieb was appointed its first director. By that point, he had already distinguished himself in digital computation, calculating the dynamic stability of designs for the new Avro Arrow fighter plane and modelling the hydrological consequences of various configurations for the St. Lawrence Seaway then being mooted. Dr. Gotlieb’s calculations so reassured the U.S. Congress that it reversed its initial opposition to the Seaway, for the first time opening the industrial and agricultural heartland of North America to global seaborne trade.

Over his long career, Dr. Gotlieb co-authored four books and authored or co-authored more than 100 publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals; in 1958, he was a founding member of the Canadian Information Processing Society. He pioneered a computerized reservation system for Trans-Canada Airlines (now Air Canada), paved the way for the world’s first computer-controlled traffic lights (in Toronto), fostered today’s machine-readable postal codes and digitized U of T’s card catalogues so effectively that his system was adopted by the U.S. Library of Congress.

“We were,” he once remarked, “responsible for an entire nation’s calculations.”

Dr. Gotlieb was a visionary, not only in the technical issues of machine computation, but also in their potential social implications. In the 1960s, he was chosen by U Thant, Secretary- General of the United Nations, to be one of six world experts advising on how computer technology might assist international development. Years later, he served on Canada’s first federal task force on privacy.

Read the complete article in the Globe and Mail here.

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